by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
What would happen if a disease turned normal human beings into roaming, hungry, flesh-eating zombies?
This scenario has been the subject of movies (Night of the Living Dead and sequels) and the monster TV hit “The Walking Dead.” Now, a possible zombie apocalypse is being used to bring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to life in schools across the country, including the classroom of Katie Martinez at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego.
The zombie scenario begins with a video explaining that a virus has infected humans. They stagger around, no longer speak, and eat noninfected humans. Although zombies aren’t real, it’s a fun way to learn how disease can spread and how populations suffer the effects of real viruses like influenza, says Martinez, San Dieguito Faculty Association.
Students discuss which parts of the brain might cause a person to become a zombie. The cerebellum, for example, controls walking. The classes discuss how real viruses (flu) and diseases affect certain parts of the brain. Then, for the math portion, students track how the disease spreads and write an equation showing the curve of the infection rate.
Students are asked to use their graphing calculators to estimate at which point the number of zombies and the number of humans would become equal, and what variable would affect this point.
“The rate of any disease will eventually decrease because of many factors,” Martinez explains. “The main factors are lack of food (healthy humans) and lack of additional targets to infect. For other epidemics, factors may include the development of a vaccine or the elimination of a vector, which is the source that carries or distributes the pathogen, such as mosquitoes, rats or other organisms.”
The National Academy of Science and Texas Instruments (which creates the large graphing calculators) teamed up to create STEM Behind Hollywood, a program that creates STEM lessons based on zombies, superheroes, space and forensics. For the zombie lessons, Texas Instruments consulted with Dr. Steve Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse. The result is a blend of science, Hollywood and math in a format that’s fun and engaging for middle school and high school students.
Because she has a side job as a consultant for Texas Instruments, Martinez was able to use the program early and test out the zombie apocalypse unit on her class. It was big hit with students, who used their graphing calculators to test out equations. The program’s popularity has been featured in national publications.
“It was a lot of fun to do with the kids. I have Algebra I students who are on the lower end for high school, and 30 to 40 percent of them have special needs. It was incredible to see the conversations they had and the excitement they shared. It was something I had not seen before. Even students who had no previous experience with zombies were interested and applying these concepts to real-life situations.”
Students say the exercise helped to make learning fun.
“It was easy to see on a graph how fast zombies would replace normal people,” says ninth-grader Mitchell Edwards.
“It’s nice to have a break from regular math with something interesting,” comments ninth-grader Nate Barnes. “Putting something interesting into math makes it fun.”
Martinez recently used a STEM Behind Hollywood Spider-Man lesson to introduce her students to quadratic functions. They watched a video and predicted what the graph of Spider-Man’s swinging path would look like. STEM Behind Hollywood also offers “STEM-ageddon!” units about what scientists would do to avoid an asteroid in the path of Earth, and a “Whodunnit?” forensics unit where students use science and math to identify victim John Doe and the cause of death.
But most popular, for the time being, is the zombie unit.
“I am not a zombie person and don’t watch the shows,” admits Martinez. “But if it gets kids interested in math in a nonthreatening manner by introducing a concept that they’re familiar with, it’s wonderful to see their excitement.”
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